7 Ways to Ensure You NEVER Sleep Well Again (or, Chinese Medicine and Insomnia)

IMG_0007Sitting here up after tossing and turning for an hour, I find that I have a fair degree of clarity concerning a topic on many people’s minds – sleep. Or, more properly, the lack of it. Insomnia, anyone?

Insomnia and other sleep disorders are a growing problem, particularly in Western nations. Because insomnia makes me rather negative – I’ll point out seven things that people do wrong to keep themselves awake and indicate what Chinese medicine has to say about them.

1. Work too late Work, especially knowledge work, burns blood. Blood is necessary to house the Shen. This will be a repetitive theme in this post. You may not understand what Blood or Shen are – I will surely blog about them sometime in the near future. To keep it simple, let’s say that Blood is the heavier, more Yin sister to Qi. It’s a nourishing fluid in your body and the concept is closely associated with what Western medicine talks about when they talk about blood. Shen is, roughly, the Spirit. But it’s a nuanced concept – it includes Western ideas about Mind, consciousness, soul and purpose. The “big fish” with sleeping is that your Shen, which is awake when you are and interacting with the world, needs to nestle into something cool and protecting while you’re asleep. That’s where Blood comes in. If your blood is damaged by overwork or is otherwise compromised, you won’t sleep well – if at all.

Solution: Set a bed time and promise yourself to stop any work at least an hour before that time. Your work can wait.

2. Eat too late: In this situation, it is as if you’ve got construction going on next to your bedroom. Your Shen is trying to get some rest after a long day of work but the Stomach (adjacent to the Heart) is busy grinding away, doing its work, making a racket and generally making it impossible for anyone to settle down.

Solution: Eat earlier. If you must eat late, eat a simple nourishing meal and eat until you’re only about 3/4 full.

3. Think too much/worry: A leading cause of sleeping problems. This activity can be harmful whether you do it during the day, right before you go to sleep, or as you try to fall asleep. Aside from burning up your blood (see #1) you’re also agitating your Heart and impacting the movement of Heart Qi. This poor movement can result in stagnation Heat or a number of other scenarios that have one end result: difficulty sleeping.

Solution: This is going to require a general lifestyle change – moving away from thinking/worrying so much in general. But in an acute situation, knowing that you need to change your lifestyle isn’t going to help. Instead, sit up in bed – relax your muscles – and breathe deeply into your belly. Let your belly expand completely as you fill your lungs with air, but try not to strain too much. Then let it relax. Do this while focusing on a space maybe 3-5 inches into your abdomen, below your bellybutton an inch or two. Do a cycle of ten breaths then let yourself breathe normally for ten breaths and repeat. Think as little as possible while you do this. This almost always puts me to sleep if I let it.

4. Sleep in uncomfortable situations, especially in the heat: If you are uncomfortable, you can’t sleep. What about your sleeping situation isn’t working for you? Maybe you need a new pillow? A firmer or softer mattress? Windows open or closed? Some white noise? Darker curtains? This isn’t so much a Chinese medicine issue, but it is common sense. You could do some evaluation of your space using Feng Shui principles, but as I don’t know much about it – I’ll stick with the common sense approach.

Solution: Lie quietly in your sleeping space and try to figure out what is distracting you from what you need – calm, uninterrupted shut-eye. Mentally resolve to fix the situation as soon as possible and use one of the techniques listed here to get you to sleep for now. Sometimes just figuring out what’s bothering you is enough to render it impotent.

5. Eat poorly: If you’re not eating plenty of whole foods, providing your body with the nutrition it needs to have good Qi and Blood you will not be able to do much of anything, including sleep. In particular, the big blood building foods: dark, leafy greens, seaweeds, some meats, whole grains, will assist in creating a rich and thick blood-filled space that your Shen will be more than happy to hang out in. As unappetizing as that just sounded, it works.

Solution: Eat your spinach. Really! Any of the foods listed above will be helpful. Avoid the usual suspects – refined carbohydrates, overly sweet foods, etc…

6. Neglect cultivation/practice: Whatever it is that you do to soothe your soul, if you don’t do it on a regular basis your soul will fail to be soothed. Make sense? Maybe you do yoga, or nightly walks, or play with your dog, or go to church, or all of these. Maybe you have an extremely eclectic practice involving howling at the moon and eating yogurt with a fork. Chances are, if you are having sleeping problems you have been neglecting the things that make you feel the most complete. Even if your favored activities don’t seem to be “cultivation” or “spiritual practice” in the way the media defines those terms, if they bring you a sense of peace and joy, if they don’t violate any of the other rules on this page – they’re cultivation for you.

Solution: Whatever it is that you have found that gives you that feeling of well-being and connectedness, you need to do it regularly. It may seem unrelated to your sleeping patterns, but I guarantee you if you do your practice on a regular basis, so long as there is no other major deficiency in your life routine, you will sleep.

7. Drink caffeine/alcohol in large amounts: We know why these interrupt sleep from a Western perspective – but what about the Chinese medicine perspective? These substances are almost invariably hot in nature. What this means is that they introduce heat into the body, which can accumulate easily in organs susceptible to heat-borne insult. The Liver and Heart are both easily irritated by heat. The Heart, via its association with the Shen and the Liver, via its association with the Hun spirits, are both important in healthy sleep. We’ve already briefly discussed Shen. The Hun spirits are sometimes associated with the human subconscious, and they are responsible for our dreaming life. If your Liver or Heart (whether via Blood or through direct insult) are damaged by heat, the Hun and Shen will fail to rest – possibly causing insomnia.

Solution: Drink these things in moderation, or not at all if you tend towards heat conditions. You could also try to keep balance by being sure to take plenty of cooling food and drink throughout your day – though I haven’t had much luck with this strategy.

What has helped you to get to sleep?

Written by Eric Grey